Thursday, February 16, 2006

Of Humility and False Pride

My friends, I want to share with you a rather humbling experience that I had today..
Those of you who have taken the trouble to check my profile will know that I work in a Teaching Hospital in the North West of England, and that I am involved in medical education and training. One of my main areas of interest is the planning for, and the management of, major incidents and disasters.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine, who works for Lancashire Ambulance Service, asked me if I would speak in a conference on Major Incident Planning and Management, which I gladly did. It was a well-attended affair, with delegates from all over the World. The positive feedback that my talk received made all my hard work completely worthwhile.
Last week, the same colleague rang me, saying that a delegation from Japan were at that conference, and they have contacted him to see if he could put them in touch with me. They wanted to ask some detailed questions that, clearly, I could not have answered at the time…
I was more than happy to oblige. I invited them to spend the whole afternoon in our Department, went through an extended version of my original presentation, and answered their questions. I took them round the Hospital, explaining the various components of our Hospital’s ‘Major Incident Plan’ (which, incidentally, I recently had the dubious pleasure of re writing). I was delighted to see that they enjoyed the afternoon, and that I managed satisfy their curiosity and their legendary Japanese attention to details.
The delegates were, in fact, three eminent Professors in Emergency Medicine and Critical Care. Each has a list of publications as long as my arm. Nevertheless, they felt that they still lacked some knowledge in the specific field of ‘Emergency Planning’, and were perfectly happy to seek that knowledge from a mere mortal like me. They came all the way from Japan, chasing one thing.. knowledge… They possessed the humility to enquire about what they did not know.. They never closed their minds to further knowledge. They never tried to hide behind their unquestionable status. On the contrary, they were actively seeking to widen their horizons and enhance their (already quite formidable) experiences..
Compare that to the attitudes of some fellow-countrymen!!.. A couple of years ago, I was approached by an old mate, who now is a prominent and well-connected surgeon in Damascus. He asked me if I would organize some courses, similar to what I regularly teach on in the UK, for doctors and other Health Care Professionals. I jumped at the opportunity.., I put at his disposal, and that of the authorities, my skills and experiences as a trainer, educator, and clinician. I offered to help train Emergency Care personnel in various aspects of emergency planning, trauma resuscitation, and other similar essential skills, free of charge, of course. I explained that with my connections in the UK, I could easily obtain permission to adapt existing courses, or develop new ones, to address the specific needs of my ‘target audience’.. My friend took up my proposals, and promised to put them to the ‘powers that be’.. He never came back to me!.. I later learned that this was done on his own initiative without ‘checking’ with the Big Wigs first.. and when he went to seek their approval and support, their reply was something on the lines of ‘Who the hell does he (yours truly, that is!..) think he is to come and teach US!!.. What does he know of the ‘systems’ (!!!) that we have here???... ‘
That, my friends, illustrates one of the fundamental problems with the Arab psyche. We are so insecure that we consider advice a threat. We are so unconfident that we view offers for help as attempts to patronise and undermine…
To my newly-found friends from Yokohama I say: ‘I am grateful to you beyond what my words can express.. You have taught me today a most valuable lesson. Humility is a sign of greatness. The ability to recognise one’s weaknesses, and to seek to address them, is the ultimate proof of strength.

13 comments:

elengil said...

Amen.

May we all be blessed with such a lesson ;)

Abu Kareem said...

Unfortunately friend, in our societies, when you achieve a certain status you tend to sit on your laurels and become fossilized. Anything new and innovative threatens your status. You find it unecessary because you know it all and your way is the only way. Imagine how much the country would benefit if there was an active attempt to tap into the expertise of Syrian professionals living abroad.

Anonymous said...

Why the insecurity ? We were not born with it.
It is an acquired trait.

The Syrian Brit said...

I agree.. It is an aquired trait.. aquired by those who refuse to accept that things change and that there might be another way.. a better way, perhaps.. They fear that other ideas and different approaches will undermine their authority and expose their inadequacies..
As you, my friend, remain anonymous, I have no idea about your background or experiences.. but I am sure if you have ever lived and worked in Syria, or had to deal with the Syrian officialdom, then you will know exactly what I mean..

Abu Kareem said...

Anonymous, it is not insecurity, it is a fact. No, we were not born with it, this is a trait found in many less developed and closed societies that do not reward innovation. Witness how many Syrians excell when they leave this enviroment. Part of the problem is societal but a big part is the sriffling and oppressive governmental system. This is a system that encourages conformity and mediocrity and frowns (I am being generous) upon people who question authority.

Hashem said...

I agree totally, knowledge is a threat in Syria. There are thee ways that this is seen. One is that they see Syrian expats as a threat in all aspects! Two comes from utter arrogance and power that: “However much you think you know we can get you down”, and three, the direct threat that you might take someone else’s position so they must protect it whatever it takes, even at the expense of not educating the nation. A few people are allowed to bring “knowledge and progress” to Syria and they are constantly praised and referred to. For example, when Bassel Al-Assad “introduced” the computer (a simple task by all means, but he can import this type of equipment obviously) everyone credits him for “computerising” the nation! You’d think he was one of the inventors of computers or one of the major scientists such as Turing, Babbage, or Von Neumann. The nation remains way behind in this field however.

Foreign “experts” are welcomed more than a-more-capable Syrian because they will not pose a threat to their seats. This is what the Syrian regime has instilled in people; one word from someone in the regime can make or break a person. This is not a regime that wants to do business and utilise the assets of its citizens and go for real progress.

This thankfully doesn’t seem to be as widespread in the Arab world as it is the case in Syria. Lebanon is a great example.

I admire the Japanese and Chinese and any nation that removes all barriers to advance itself. I feel we are a long way from that. That’s why real reform must happen and this corrupt regime must be stopped. The damage they have been causing cannot be quantified by any means.

I personally am very proud to know about the successes of my fellow citizens such as yourself and I hope one day soon that these backward and damaging barriers are removed once and for all.

Hashem.

The Syrian Brit said...

Hashem,
Thank you very much for your kind words. I am equally proud to have people like yourself as fellow Syrians.
I sincerely hope that we will soon see a major change in attitude, allowing our beloved Country to benefit from the skills and expertise of its citizens, in Syria and abroad.

Omar said...

When I finished my Masters in the UK in 2000, I came back to Syria, wanting to apply what I learned and use the new skills I acquired for my country, blah blah blah..

I went to the Order of Engineers (Nakabet al muhandeseen) to have my degrees transferred.. the registration clerk (whose level of education didn't go beyond high school maybe) looks at me and says: your masters is one year long... there is no such masters that is only one year long.. this is a diploma.. (just like that!!)
And then, he looks at me with suspecious eye and asks: did you pay to get this degree? how can I trust that this is authentic? what is this "University College London" thing? I am sorry but I can't transfer your degrees unless you convince me that you actually did go there and that this university is accredited..

Two months later, I was on a plane going out, promising myself not to come back again...

This not only refusing to admit that others can have more skills than them.. it is that the system is in the hands of people who can abuse it to their own liking, and what gets applied (and what not) is relevant to what the administration wants to allow,be that for political reasons (myself not being a baathist of course), ethnic and religious (secular) reasons, and a giant load of coruption where even if you go and give your knowledge and skills, your contribution will be lost in the amidst of routine paperwork etc...

this is wht Japan is a first world country, and we are aiming at the 7th world country status now...

Rime said...

Hi Syrian Brit, I've been meaning to commiserate about your story for a couple of days now. Thanks for sharing with us, I can share your frustration. I don't think it's Arab psyche per say, but perhaps this culture of false superiority that has been imposed on us for the past 40 years. In fact, most of these people have great inferiority complexes: your professionalism would have demonstrated their own shortcomings, and more importantly would have put another Syrian (you) on a dangerously competitive level. What if someone above them sees how good you are and thinks you belong there? That is not really a problem with non-Syrians, who are unlikely to be looking to replace them, as Hashem pointed out.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I visited the hospital for a small matter. As we spoke to the consultant, I automatically referred to him as Doctor; he immediately corrected me, saying he was not a doctor but a technician. As we walked out, my husband told me he couldn't help but think that had we been in Syria, the man would not have corrected me. How sad is that!

As for the story Omar tells us above, it is simply so disheartening to hear about such ridiculous and excessive - and stupid - zeal! I hope Omar is very successful wherever he goes, and that one day the people who run our country realize how crazy they've been to allow this brain drain. At least the more Syrians are frustrated at home, the more they are driven to excel abroad!

Don Cox said...

I don't think this is unique to Syria. The same attitudes are found in any badly managed organisation, where mediocrities at the top appoint less able people under them, and so on down the line. Parkinson covered this in his book "Parkinson's Law" under the heading of "injelitis". It is almost inevitable under any tyranny.

The Syrian Brit said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Syrian Brit said...

I am absolutely sure that you are all right in saying that this is not a specifically-Syrian affliction.. it just seems that it is more prevalent there..
Rime, I think your husband is right.. Had this incident happened in Syria, you would not have been corrected.. I think it is because people back home are not made to feel proud of what they do.. The technician who corrected you does not need to ‘borrow’ somebody else’s identity to have pride in his achievements.. He feels, and rightly so, that he is important in his own right.. But equally importantly, in my view, is that he is respected for what he does.. (Do you not think that, in a strange way, this, somehow, links to the story on Steve Jobs’ parentage and what kind of an Apple he would have created had he grown up in Syria..)
Omar, your story brings back so many memories of similar stories it actually hurts.. When my brother-in-law came back to Damascus with TWO PhDs and wanted to register them, he was told (probably by the same person you had the (mis)fortune to deal with!!..) that he couldn’t have possibly had achieved two PhDs in three years, and that he must have bought them off someone.. He has been working and living abroad ever since!!..
Dan, I think you hit the nail on the head.. This is the inevitable product of tyranny..
Thank you all for your thoughts.. In a rather perverse way, I am pleased to find that it wasn’t just my paranoia getting the better of me!!..

Ascribo said...

I have just discovered this lovely blog. It's somehow alleviating to know that there's still some people who can think and write in a clear way...

First of all, Omar, sorry for you. UCL?! Let me tell you about a fellow who had a Ph.D. from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and went back home. He was told that there's no way that one can get a Ph.D. from an Institute as the name implies. Where the hell do they want us to get degrees from?!

Actually, I have been thinking about the matter for a while, I even code-named it: "Our only problem is that we do NOT admit having a problem"...
After coming to the UK, I have noticed to myself how the consultant would say something like: "I have no idea", or "I didn't pick up that"...such a thing which is completely unacceptable for a Syrian new-grad, not to say consultant...as their arrogance grow bigger as they "Progress"

Today, I was thinking that this problem was oneday the problem of the Satan himself...His empty arrogance went even further, trying to make false arguments that supported his view. You all know the details

Anyway, I think that if all bloggers kept writing about our problems, maybe one day ALL of us will be able to understand that we don't live in that ivory tower anymore....and we'll begin to admit our own problems...Only then we can start to speak about a kind of a solution